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Children's Book Reviews

Letters to Judy
An Interview with Judy Blume

Kate Marley

"...please me tell my parents. I want to talk to them about personal subjects but I donít know how. I wish I could ask them questions but Iím too afraid. Nobody ever talks about whatís on my mind, either at home or at school."

For years, children have been writing letters like this to Judy Blume. Her book characters inspired many children (and adults) to write her as they would a trusted friend. She receives almost two thousand letters a month.
Dear Judy,
Please write a book for adults about our problems to open their eyes.
Amy, age 10

Letters To Judy is that book, aimed at adults, but accessible to children. As with Ms. Blumeís fiction the simple colloquial style is deceptive. It sticks like meat and potatoes.

Chapters are arranged by subject, so readers can browse through the topics that most interest them. In addition to the many letters, Ms. Blume writes of her own growing up, and her experiences as a parent. While special problems, like handicaps or incest are discussed, most of the book is about ordinary kids coping with common problems - school, parents, siblings, moving, puberty and the opposite sex.

Baltimore was one of the cities included for her book tour, and I had an opportunity to interview Judy Blume in person.

She is a slim, petite woman, fashionable yet sensibly dressed, with an expressive face, easy smile and sparkling eyes. She lacks the arrogance and conceit of most celebrities; she listens as well as she speaks.

Since the book was so new at the time of the interview, Judy was only starting to get some responses. "Iíll tell you who Iíve heard from," she said. "One mother who has two daughters, 11 and 13. I canít remember which one she said is non-communicative, but I think the 13 year old."

"And she said that she was home fixing dinner, and her daughter was sitting in the kitchen, as kids and mothers do. She was reading from the book, and suddenly she started to cry - this is the daughter. And the mother turned around and said, 'What is it?!'

"Her daughter started to read to her from the book. It was actually Lauraís story - it touched off something about her own feelings."

"And the mother said, for the first time - in YEARS - they sat down together - itís very sad, and it made me cry," her hands fluttered as if to cover her embarrassment over her sentimentality, "I mean itís very sweet. And because of those letters they started to talk, the daughter opened up to her, and shared some feelings. That was very nice."

Laura is one of the two youngsters in the book whose stories are told at length. Since a bond has developed after the years of exchanging letters, Laura and Tracy both knew beforehand of their roles in the book.

As for any writer, reader response is important, but even more so for this book, since Judy had definite ideas about its purpose.

"I hope, you know, that there will be a lot of feedback from parents," she said thoughtfully. "Iím hoping - that it offers insights, that it forces them to remember things they had wanted to forget, and which, in turn, make it easier to identify and be understanding of their own children."

Dear Judy,
I think the main point of kidsí books is to show that things that happen to you also happen to other kids. It makes kids feel like they are normal. I thought I was weird for doing and thinking some things but your books make me feel okay.
Brian, age 13

The time and energy poured into Letters to Judy convinced her of one thing. "Never again will I attempt non-fiction!" she stated firmly, but laughing again at herself. "No. Iím quite sure I can say that and mean it. Never again."

Right now, she is working on a novel for children; she thinks the main theme will be about friendship. Like most writers, she goes through feelings of inadequacy - will she be able to do it again? Or will she lose touch with children and their concerns, particularly now that her own are grown and gone?

But although her children inspired some books (Blubber, Superfudge, and Forever) most of her books are pulled from her own childhood memories. "I find the child I was much more interesting - mysterious," explained Judy. "The teenager I became was very boring and bland."

"And then, I have all the letters from the kids, they really do keep me in touch. And also all those letters prove to me that there isnít any difference - that they are just as I was, as a child." And in her book, she says, "I donít think the letters in this book mean that kids today are more or less troubled than they were a generation ago. Their problems may be caused by different situations, but their feelings about those problems and about themselves are the same."

As for why she is so wildly popular among children, Judy has been asked why for years, and still hasnít really figured it out. She doesnít want to hear any analysis of her work because she prefers to keep her writing spontaneous and natural. Children have praised the reality in her stories, for example, that she Ďdoesnít leave out things like brushing your teeth.í

Judy offered her son Larryís opinion, "Youíve never preached in your books and thatís why theyíve worked," he told her. "Donít start."

Dear Judy,
I recently found out I have scoliosis. So I read your book Deenie over again. It helped me cope with the hard times...
Tina, age 13

Dear Judy,
...during all the time I was teased (in school) I escaped with reading. Thatís when I discovered your books. I could really relate with the teasing in Blubber although Iím not fat. All I can say is, thank you for being there when you were needed most.
Billy, age 13

Many of Judy Blumeís books for children have stirred controversy, particularly those that deal with puberty such as Are You There God? Itís Me, Margaret, Deenie, and Then Again, Maybe I Wonít. Even Blubber has been banned in some elementary schools.

"Oh, they attack Blubber, not for sexuality, but for Ďlack of moral tone.í I once read that." Judy explained with a faint grimace. "Thatís why it was removed in Montgomery County. ĎLack of moral toneí."

How have the adults who ban Judyís books been unaware that the children feel these books teach them valuable lessons, albeit with fun? Again, itís the problems of mutual communication and listening.

"One of the reasons I think that Iím so pleased with this book (Letters to Judy) is when people write about this book or that book, I can now refer them to sections in this book of childrenísí letters and let the children say - more eloquently. I had phone calls (in a radio show) that just really were - FULL of anguish, because they were from people who had either been victims of the classroom, or whose children were being victimized. It was - oh! - at least ten times worse than anything I wrote about in Blubber," Judy said, also noting that a child canít quit school if all else fails. "Iíve always tried to explain this to adults, that if you think this (adulthood) is tough, real life in fifth grade is much, MUCH tougher."

She pauses thoughtfully, her hands still. "I think that the censors who are the far right fundamentalists - nothing is going to change their minds," she said quietly. "I accept that. They believe what they believe, and all I can say to OTHER people is - if you care, then you must be kind of involved and vocal too."

"And what I say to the censors is - you can tell your own children what theyíre not allowed to read, and maybe that will work, and maybe it wonít. But you canít tell everybody elseís children what books will be available. It doesnít work that way."

"The basic disagreement is that they believe they can control their childrenís minds and..." she pauses her even delivery and says even more quietly, "...I donít. Nor do I want to. I would rather guide than control."

But while she hopes kids will come away from her books thinking, she sees herself primarily as a storyteller, not a Writer With A Message. One notable exception is Forever, a young adult novel also banned in some Maryland libraries.

"I set out to say that sex is a responsibility," explained Judy. Her daughter wanted a love story without a grisly ending, and although Judy encourages kids NOT to have early intercourse, she still didnít feel it was right to link sex with punishments such as unwanted pregnancy, STDs, etc. "Sex with responsibility, I thought that was important."

Dear Judy,
After reading Forever, I can really see that my relationship with Adam may not be like it is now, forever. That book can really make you think. I only wish I had read it sooner. Maybe I would have held off when it came to sex with Adam.
Kim, age 17

Curiously, the censors have not been vocal about this book. Judy was exhilarated by all the positive energy. "Iím used to being attacked, on call-in shows particularly," she said, "All thatís come through on this tour is love, love, love, all over the country!" She tells of calling her son, and describing the feeling. "Larry, everyone thinks Iím SO wonderful!" and he said, "Well, youíre not." Judy laughed. "And of course heís right. Iíve made a million mistakes, just like any parent."

To try and help others avoid similar mistakes, Judy has turned over all the profits from this newest book to the KIDS FUND, an educational and charitable foundation that offers grants to non-profit organizations with programs aimed at improving communications and relationships between parents and children. Judy Blume seems to put her money where her mouth is.

When she visited Enoch Pratt Free Library, Judy was very impressed by the performance of the Family Circle Theatre, Inc. The Baltimore Council on Adolescent Pregnancy, Parenting and Pregnancy Prevention, Inc. and the Family Circle Theatre are both grant recipients of the KIDS FUND. Judy hopes that these and similar programs all over the country will give youngsters some positive direction.

For there are times when she feels overwhelmed by all those letters, all those pleas for help and understanding. She feels tormented by her limited time and ability, and knows she has to step back. "I canít save ALL these kids." She sighs sadly.

"But I want to save Laura." she admits, her natural optimism surfacing again.

First published in Baltimoreís Child, July/August 1986. All rights reserved.
Photo credit of Judy Blume by Thomas Victor
personal interview May 10, 1986
promotional material from G.P. Putnam's Sons, Publishers

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